Science Center of Iowa Blog

At the Science Center of Iowa, our goal is to be a quality community resource for informal science learning where children, families, school groups and individuals come to explore science and technology. To continue the learning outside our walls, we give you the SCI blog! Our knowledgeable staff, along with special guests and local scientists, will give you a behind-the-scenes look at SCI activities and in-depth information about science events.

Latest Posts

Jul
2

Get to Know VP of Science Learning Renee Harmon

Get to Know VP of Science Learning Renee Harmon

By Taylor Soule

SCI: What drew you to the Science Center of Iowa?

Renee Harmon: I’ve long been a Greater Des Moines resident, and the Science Center of Iowa has been a pivotal part of my personal life. I remember as a child coming to the Science Center for my very first field trip, and my very first overnight experience was at the Science Center in the old facility. It made an impact on who I became. I am an educator at heart, and those experiences helped me develop my passion in science and science learning. 

SCI: Can you tell SCI visitors a little bit about your professional background?

RH: I’ve been in education for more than 20 years now. I started as a classroom teacher and have been in the classroom from birth through the middle school years in a variety of ways. I was a classroom teacher at the Downtown School, taught there for a significant amount of time and was the assistant principal there as well. Then, I took a path that led me to the Business Education Alliance, which is another nonprofit in our community focused on excellence in education. During that time, I was able to participate in delivering graduate classes through Drake University, as well as work with some other organizations on their work in education, including art as well as the Greater Des Moines Community Foundation. I’ve always been passionate about teaching and learning, and one of the things that’s most exciting to me as a teacher and a learner is the ability to make an impact in somebody’s life in a way you can’t predict. It’s an exciting experience to be a teacher and a learner during this time because what we know about teaching and learning is evolving as research continues.

SCI: What motivates you every day in your role as VP Science Learning?

RH: Education is absolutely in my blood, and what really motivates and guides me in life is just being able to make an impact — and in particular, an impact in the life of a child. I’m also a mom, so that is something that also guides me day to day. I have three amazing boys who love the Science Center, and that has also ignited a passion for me in the work that’s done here — seeing the Science Center through their eyes.

SCI: What’s a time you felt particularly in awe by the power of science?

RH: As a teacher, what inspires me about science has been seeing that children can be inspired to be creative and to think outside the box about how things work. When you are engaged with a child in an experiment or in research around science, they think creatively. They problem-solve and work collaboratively. One of my favorite things about being a teacher was allowing children to see that science isn’t about reading in a book or formulas — it’s about how you work together to solve problems, to really study through observation. That’s really powerful. And when you watch any child really think on a significant level about what they’re observing in their environment and think about how things react, it’s an amazing experience.

SCI: What’s been most challenging about your transition into the VP Science Learning role? 

RH: I think one of the most difficult things is to quickly gather knowledge about everything that’s happening here at the Science Center. What’s happening here is so plentiful that on a short-term basis, I’ve had the opportunity to see all the amazing things that are happening. So, getting a sense of all the work that we’re doing is amazing and again, inspiring.

SCI: What’s been the most rewarding aspect of your time at SCI so far?

RH: The most rewarding thing about working at the Science Center has been getting to know each of the individuals who work here and contribute to the mission of the Science Center of Iowa. Each person works very hard to contribute their passions and their talents to make things run here in a way that really serves our community. 

SCI: How do you hope to grow science learning at SCI?

RH: Of course, that is what I’m most excited about — looking at the core of work that we’re currently doing, evaluating how we’re servicing our community and designing and planning programs, experiences and opportunities for the entire community to get engaged with the Science Center.

SCI: Which SCI exhibit is your favorite and why?

RH: Currently, Making — the new Makers Studio because every day since the opening of the exhibit, I see children with lights flashing on their faces. They’re excited, and they’re getting to share with the Makers about what they’ve created, and they’re getting honored for their creation. They’re able to make connections in a way that I am able to see, with a huge amount of excitement. It’s delightful to walk through the exhibit and see that. It’s amazing to see and hear all those conversations surrounding the movement of Making. It’s amazing.

SCI: How does SCI’s mission to engage and inspire Iowans along their journey of lifelong science learning resonate with you?

RH: Because I’m a mom and an educator, I think on a practical level about all the great things that we do with our student population and for our families. But it really is bigger than that. It’s about reaching our entire community and seeing how science can come alive to them. To me, it’s about building connections within our community and a foundation of understanding about the importance of science in our lives. It’s inspiring.  

Category: General SCI

Jun
26

Makers in the Community: Latham Hobbs

Makers in the Community: Latham Hobbs

By Taylor Soule

Latham Hobbs created an impromptu maker workshop in the creek bed behind his childhood home. There, 5-year-old Hobbs dismantled everything from bicycles to pedal cars to fishing lures — before putting them back together, of course. 

Two decades later, Hobbs’ workshop looks dramatically different. As a CNC programmer at Accumold in Ankeny, the 25-year-old directs high-tech computers that build complex microstructures from steel and plastic.

Though his haven is no longer at the bottom of a creek, and though he now spends more time putting things together than taking them apart, Hobbs’ maker outlook remains the same.

“The mindset you have to have is, ‘Nothing is impossible,’” Hobbs said. “That’s about the only way I can describe it. You just have to have the determination to make it possible.”

For Hobbs, making is practically second nature. He grew up watching his father take apart cars — only to rebuild them. That experience fueled Hobbs’ passion for working with his hands, and he quickly graduated from building with LEGO and K’Nex sets to building a bed frame from wood in high school. 

“I like mechanic stuff, anything gas-powered, anything pedal-powered, anything that can float or fly,” Hobbs said. “I had the mindset that if somebody could put it together, I could tear it apart and then put it back together. I can’t think of one thing I had as a kid I did not tear apart and put back together.” 

His versatility as a maker led to a 2007 Accumold Scholarship award. In his application, Hobbs said he enjoys “making tangible items that serve a purpose.” Hobbs earned an associate’s degree in tool- and die-making from Des Moines Area Community College and immediately found his niche at Accumold, which creates microstructures for cell phones, cars, surgical procedures and even the aerospace industry.  

Whether he’s building with LEGOs, K’Nex, wood or metal, Hobbs champions the power of manufacturing at every level. Plus, Hobbs said the manufacturing field is rife with opportunities, thanks to a growing demand for makers and their talents. 

“I love what I do,” Hobbs said. “I would definitely encourage other people to give it a try, whether it be on the design side or the production side, because America needs manufacturing. We need stuff made, and we need makers to do it.”

At work and at home, projects don’t always turn out perfectly, but for Hobbs, that’s an integral part of the making experience — and a constant challenge to create new solutions. 

“If something doesn’t work, you have to find a way to make it work, make it better or simplify it,” Hobbs said. 

In a field defined by experimentation and innovation, failure isn’t necessarily negative. It’s simply a chance to learn something new.

“Failure is probably the most frustrating part, but you can’t learn unless you have failure,” Hobbs said.

Whether it’s a creek bed, a manufacturing company, a science laboratory, a writers’ workshop or an art studio, one key principle defines making for Hobbs: “It’s about trying it. You honestly don’t know until you try.”  

Category: Make@SCI

Jun
21

Playing with Phenomena: Paper-Making

Playing with Phenomena: Paper-Making

For the second and last week of our "Playing with Phenomena" theme, we made our own paper. To do this, we made pulp, pulled sheets using screens and dried the sheets.

The pulp we used was simply made out of newspaper and water, something that could easily be replicated at home (see instructions below). This means we were actually making recycled paper, so our making was also good for the environment!

On a few days we also worked with mulberry bark, or Kozo, which was donated to us by the University of Iowa Center for the Book. After boiling this bark for two hours, participants helped us to beat it into a pulp which could then be used to make another type of paper.

The “yuckiness” of the pulp did turn away some, but those that gave it a try got to see that it really wasn’t that bad, and they got to make some awesome paper, as shown in the picture. While not every piece turned our as a perfect rectangle, all of the finished products were unique and functional.

 

Directions for newspaper-based pulp:

  1. Tear an old newspaper into strips, and soak in water for about 30 minutes
  2. Rip the newspaper into even smaller pieces to be blended, and fill up a blender halfway with these pieces
  3. Fill the blender the rest of the way with warm water
  4. Blend on low speed for about 10 seconds, then on high for about 20
  5. If pulp is too thick to pull sheets of paper, add water as needed

Category: Make@SCI

Jun
14

Playing with Phenomena: Moss Graffiti

Playing with Phenomena: Moss Graffiti

By: Gavin Warnock, SCI Maker-In-Residence

This week was all about moss graffiti, an interesting and eco-friendly way to decorate a wall space!

There are two mains ways to make moss graffiti. One method grinds up any moss to start the growth process from scratch. There are many good sources for directions, and almost any search for a moss graffiti how to will get you where you need to go (There are recipes with and without beer). The main benefit of this method is that you only need a small amount of moss. The downside is you need at least a month to see the fruits of your labor.

The other method we found is as simple as making a paste that will both attach the moss and provide nutrients to assist the transfer. This is the method we used because it allows for instant results. This method is a lot less popular, but I found one source with a good recipe: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IQjY9cXaP4w (The narrator mentions stopping when the paste got lumpy, but we found that mixing through the lumpiness gave us a smooth paste). This recipe calls for beer, but we found success replacing the beer with water.

To get moss, you can simply harvest some from the backyard - and we did just that! We used several different types of moss (including ground moss) and found success with most. Additionally, there are several sites where you can buy different types of sheet moss that will spring back to life with a little water. Mossacres.com is a site with great selection.

During our studio time, we had a lot of fun working with all ages in making our moss graffiti. We decided to create a mural on a piece of particle board, and all of us had a great time watching it evolve and gain character. We had contributions from toddlers to adults with little difficulty in any group. During this time, we found that spreading the paste by hand and applying about as thick as you would spread peanut butter gave us the best results. Additionally, the paste can be refrigerated for later use, but it must be stored in a sealed container to avoid unwanted drying. In the end, we got a great mural with the combined efforts of over fifty visitors and staff!

Category: Make@SCI

Jun
9

More Than Just a Weekly Visit

More Than Just a Weekly Visit

By: April Keller, SCI Member

If you met my son two years ago, you might be amazed at the kid he is today. I originally wanted to write this post from my perspective — what I personally love about SCI, and everything I tried to put on paper came back to his personal journey. This place helped teach him how to embrace the world.

I have shared with the Science Center of Iowa just how great we think the place is, but it goes deeper than that. What he learns there he brings home, carries to school, uses as an ice breaker and astounds his friends.

But most of all, it has given him a voice.

When my son was 3 years old, we noticed he had communication hurdles to overcome. He had problems speaking to other people, specifically problems asking and answering questions. It was frustrating to him, and his behavior reflected that frustration. Therapy was helping, and we started working with him on behavior goals. If his behavior is top-notch all week, he gets to go wherever he likes as a reward. One week we took a trip to SCI, and that is the place he has picked every week since as his reward. In two years, I can only recall two times he has ever fallen short of his reward. It means that much to him.

I let him lead the way when we go. We started in Small Discoveries, rarely venturing anywhere else. Instead of shying away from others, he piled fruit on a conveyor belt and connected with other children. He was part of a common goal and even though he didn’t say much, he became an integral part of the action. He couldn’t help but go there and ask questions, slowly at first, and then more and more flooded through. Every visit, he focused on something new.

However, it was when he started interacting with the staff that I noticed a gigantic difference. There are opportunities for people to ask questions after the daily programs. One day, he mustered up the courage to ask a question. I could tell right away — when the presenter answered his question that very first time — it was like a rock star calling a random child out of the audience to play the big guitar solo on stage.

And he just ate it up.

The weeks that have followed became, in part, dedicated to asking more questions — but also for making sure he was doing the same at school. He would ponder the answers and point out what he learned in his books at home and in school, describing them in as much detail as he could remember. When we would go back the next week, he’d investigate the different areas and apply things he learned from the previous visit. Because science is so much a part of everything, it was accessible to him and he was excited about learning the answers, talking about his discoveries and asking more questions.

In these past two years, he’s learned how a hovercraft works (and rode on one). He came face-to-face with a T-Rex, a shark, the midnight zone of the ocean, a bolt of lightning and countless explosions. He can identify the metal salt that turns a firework green. He can identify most of the animals in What on Earth?, name all the planets in Why the Sky? and can give you a brief synopsis of every clip in the Cosmic Jukebox.

He often speculates about what is on the other side of a black hole and if there are other universes. None of this happened overnight. It has taken two years of careful investigation and loads of questions.

So, what’s he like today? Animated. Outgoing. Enthusiastic. He is now the one who shows other children how to put fruit on that conveyor belt. But will he grow up to be a scientist because of the time we spend at SCI? Will he someday be just like his favorite scientists he sees every week? Only time will tell. But what I do know? He’s gotten pretty good at questioning everything and looking for answers — and I think that’s a pretty good start.

April has been an SCI member since 2012. She loves discussing which superpower would be the coolest, stockpiling vintage books and napping; not necessarily in that order.

Category: General SCI